Tag Archive for Homeless

San Francisco Startup Buses Showers to Homeless

San Francisco’s homeless population, estimated at up to 10,000, will soon get some hygiene help from a local entrepreneur. A new startup called Lava Mae will use decommissioned buses donated by the city to provide mobile showers, delousing chambers and toilets to the homeless. Doniece Sandoval, who started the organization, said they will start with a single bus and eventually expand the operation to four buses that will roam the city.

The city received a federal grant to upgrade its buses and the city’s original plan, Sandoval said, was to sell 40 old buses for a nominal fee to make room for the new vehicles. But as a nonprofit organization, Sandoval was told she could have as many buses as she wanted, which will greatly reduce her costs.

“There’s a UN and World Health Organization statement that says that these two things, access to water and sanitation, are basic human rights and it’s sad that here in a city as affluent as San Francisco, there are thousands of people who struggle with access to either,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval had to adjust her original vision as she encountered obstacles. Originally, she planned for each bus to have six showers, six toilets, and on-board water tanks. She discovered, however, that water tanks would have destabilized the vehicles and that there would only be enough room for three showers and two toilets on each vehicle. To get water, the organization got permission from the city to tap into fire hydrants, which will be metered and paid for by the nonprofit. They will put on-demand water heaters on each shower so that warm showers will be available.

The group also needs to figure out how to prevent people from loitering in public when the bus stops in various places. Getting past these types of obstacles has largely been possible thanks to cooperation from Mayor Ed Lee’s office. Without support from the city, most notably Bevan Dufty, Director of HOPE (Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement) for the City and County of San Francisco, making the project a reality would have been much more difficult, she explained.

Originally, Sandoval planned to refurbish the buses out of state — an expensive proposition. But she found a local design firm that she believes will be able to do the job for a fraction of the cost. Her total costs will be between $150,000 and $200,000 during the years they acquire the buses, and costs should drop after that. The first Lava Mae bus will need supplies, two paid staff members, liability insurance, and fuel to get started.

There are a few benefits of a mobile shower service, according to Sandoval. First, it’s cheaper to operate a bus than it is to build onto an existing brick-and-mortar facility and start paying property taxes. Lava Mae will collaborate with facilities that offer other services, but not showers, to reach their audience.

Secondly, while some homeless people suffer from mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse issues, there are those who are simply down on their luck, Sandoval said. “There are people for whom a shower might mean the opportunity for a job or apply for housing, where if you show up and you’re dirty, people won’t take you seriously at all,” she said.

Eventually, Sandoval said, Lava Mae could incorporate some form of technology to get the word out to the homeless population about their location. They are considering text messaging to reach homeless people who have cell phones or perhaps some kind of alert bracelet.

Though still in the early planning stages, Sandoval said she has already received interest from people in cities around the country who want her to expand in their areas. “That’s really the long-term vision – to create best practices that we can share,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be Lava Mae necessarily because every community can be slightly different, but I just want to demonstrate that it can be a totally local project that can be easy to execute if somebody puts their hand up and says, ‘Here you go. This is how you do it.’”

Biometrics Improves Homeless Services in New Jersey

Fingerprint scans have been used for years by government agencies to help improve security, identify criminals and reduce welfare fraud. But in a new twist, New Jersey will soon use it to track and manage food, shelter, medicinal services and other basic necessities it provides to its homeless population.

The state is deploying a new biometrics data management system (BDMS) that includes a Web-based fingerprinting component. Once online, the system will enable state officials to more efficiently track who is receiving homeless services and the types of services rendered.

Like many other states hit hard by the recession, New Jersey has seen its homeless population rise and the demand for services increase substantially. The state entered 79,604 people* into the New Jersey Homeless Management Information System (NJHMIS) in 2012 — up from 61,167 in 2011 and 56,754 in 2010, according to Abram Hilson, assistant director of NJHMIS. 

The project, which is modeled after a program in Bergen County, will start with with five locations that will serve as beta sites for three months. If successful, New Jersey’s Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (HMFA) plans to offer the technology to approximately 224 county and nonprofit organizations providing homeless services in the state.

Bergen County has been scanning the fingerprints of people coming into its food banks since 2010. The technology has improved both the accuracy of records and the speed in which people receive their food.

Initially, state officials wanted to wait until the benefits of Bergen’s program were proven before adopting a similar system, Hilson said. But confident in its value, the state is moving forward, investing in an upgraded version that is different from Bergen’s in several ways. 

For example, the biometric system used in Bergen County requires someone to manually upload fingerprint data. The new state system, however, operates in real time. When a person comes in and has his or fingerprint scanned, staff members immediately see a record of all the services that individual has received — food, clothing, shelter, etc. They record what services the homeless person needs and the data is automatically provided to the NJHMIS through a Web service.

Driving the high-tech identification system is the need for timely information about the state’s homeless population and the services they’re using. More accurate statistics are critical to the financial viability of the agency because funding from the federal government is based on the number of services delivered. In addition, the system will automate a number of tasks, freeing up personnel to handle other important work, according to Hilson.

“Not only will this [fingerprint scanning system] save time because you don’t have to stand in line to fill out paperwork or sign anything,” Hilson said. “[You] just simply come in, put your finger there and then go about your business and get services.”

In instances where fingerprints can’t be read, the system is also designed to perform facial recognition as a secondary means of identifying a client, according to Ray Bolling, CEO of Eyemetric Identity Systems, which developed the system. Though the system will store the fingerprint and facial recognition data, shelter visitors don’t have to worry because their information will not be shared with law enforcement databases.

Funding for the pilot program comes primarily from federal grants and will be paid out of the housing agency’s budget, according to Hilson. The state’s housing agency runs NJHMIS, while a collaborative of nonprofits and county offices contribute participation fees that will help pay for the project.

“We are really hoping this technology will help agencies that usually experience a large volume of repeat clients,” said Erin Lue-Hing, NJHMIS data quality analyst. “It might not be something that would particularly work for everybody, but we are seeing a growing interest.”

*The NJHMIS numbers for 2010 through 2012 do not include Bergen County. This story was originally published on GOVERNING.com. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.